David Brandon Geeting for Bloomberg Businessweek
The Fault in Our Stars is a contemporary teen romance in the way that Paris is a city in Europe and ice cream is a type of dessert. It tells the story of Hazel Grace and Augustus, Midwestern “cancer kids” who meet at a support group and connect over their fatalistic sarcasm and mutual attraction. They’ve both been maimed by their illnesses—Augustus has had a leg amputated, and Hazel needs oxygen tubes to support her damaged lungs—and though they delight in mocking the usual cancer narratives of “miracle” drugs and stoic, saintly patients, their story doesn’t dodge the cruelties of juvenile disease. It’s not all grim: There’s fumbling teen sex in hospital beds and friends who do and don’t understand, and a pickled literary recluse in Amsterdam whom the two cash in a Make-a-Wish Foundation gift to visit.
More than 7 million hardcover copies of Fault (a paperback was released in March) have circulated widely—among middle school English classes, from teen to tween, from child to parent to grandparent, and beyond. A movie adaptation is coming out in early June, further initiating anyone not yet familiar with the tale and its author, John Green, a 36-year-old writer who lives in Indianapolis. If you know what to look for, you’ll find Fault references everywhere in the teen/tween universe: on Instagram, in school lockers and libraries, on T-shirts and text sign-offs.
Green is also one of the most trusted people on the Web. Since 2006, he and his brother Hank have hosted (or posted) short videos of themselves, as the Vlogbrothers. The two also produce a popular educational series called CrashCourse, and Green and his wife, Sarah, do a PBS series called The Art Assignment. Together these have captured more than a billion and a half views. Since Green is averse to cross-platform promotion, he rarely mentions his book releases on his videos, and his Web popularity doesn’t really explain the breadth and success of his books. But all his media speak to teenagers in an unusually direct and sympathetic way.
Inside jokes and shared passions were out in force at the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which was held on the University of Southern California campus. A group of local seventh graders had gathered the night before to make Fault-related clothing they could have bought online (“homemade is better”) and to paint their faces with a signature Hazel/Augustus exchange (“OK? OK”). That the couple’s romance sprang from the imagination of a 36-year-old Midwestern guy with a wife and kids and the occasional anxiety issue isn’t lost on them. “It’s incredible,” 12-year-old Daniella says, “that he can write a book about two cancer kids and make it something we can freak out about.”
Alamy(2); Getty Images(3)
Wyck Godfrey, part of the production team that made the Twilight movies, produced the film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars, as well as filming Green’s third novel, a high school road trip mystery called Paper Towns. The way Green’s teenage characters relate to one another, with their sharp wit, reminds Godfrey of the John Hughes characters he wanted to be as a kid. Compared with most summer movies, he says, The Fault in Our Stars is low-budget and tackles less than sunny material. But while “it’s kind of an anti-blockbuster, we all believe that it’ll play like one.” He thinks much of Green’s appeal lies in the credit he gives his audience. “The intelligence with which John treats teenagers is refreshing to them. They’re not all just a bunch of YouTube-watching empty vessels. They’re asking big questions. They’re funny in the least expected ways.”
Treating kids’ problems and concerns like they matter is essential to Green. “For all the adult concern that Facebook (FB) and Instagram are warping their minds into echo chambers of self-obsession,” he says, “I’ve found that if you treat them as if they are smart and curious, they will respond in kind. I think they’re so often undervalued by pop culture, particularly by the big corporations that churn stuff out for them. A lot of kids are really excited to be thought of as smart.”
Growing up in Orlando, Green was a nerd with a Prodigy account and good intentions. “I was always interested in communities and how I could participate in them,” he says, splashing room service chardonnay into his glass. “I mean, I wanted to be a minister.” Green has 45 minutes in his hotel before attending the book festival, where he’ll receive the Innovators Award and generally upstage Pulitzer-winning journalists, important biographers, and world-renowned poets. He crosses his legs and considers the chardonnay before he takes a sip, wondering if sleepy is what you want to be before you go to the L.A. Times Book Prizes.”
His jeans are faded and of a pre-skinny vintage, and his small wire glasses seek to make no statement whatsoever. His T-shirt features Harry and the Potters, part of an ardent genre of rock bands that perform songs about Dumbledore, Hermione, and the others. He wears a Nike (NKE) FuelBand, which he’s forever scheming ways to game. Green loves data, from Fault sales, which he’s checked every week for 500 weeks, to the mileage on what he says is his one and only splurge, his dream car, a 2014 Chevy Volt, to the page views on any number of his ancillary Web-based projects.
Green describes his adolescence as stultifying. “I struggled,” he says. “It was bullying, not fitting in, being a nerd who also wasn’t very smart or wasn’t thought of as smart.” His parents threw him a lifeline in the form of Indian Springs, a progressive prep school near Birmingham, Ala., which Green credits with changing the course of his life. It’s where he dug in academically, as a reader and a lover of big ideas. After Kenyon College, where he fell more deeply under the sway of literature and philosophy, he applied to divinity school and got a job as a chaplain at an Ohio children’s hospital.
The work quickly unraveled him, rendering useless just about every religious and philosophical weapon he had. “All my fancy ideas,” he says, “about how you reconcile the reality of evil with the ostensible omniscience of God, all the reading I’d done, it meant nothing. No idea could hold up in the face of this reality. I was with actual children and actual families, and their kids were dying, and it was just devastating. All that s--- goes completely out the window when you actually see, you know, horror.”
After six months he quit, blew off divinity school, and got a job at the Chicago-based magazine Booklist, where he found a mentor and started learning how to write young adult fiction. It would be more than a decade and four books later before he’d be able to use his children’s hospital experience in his fiction. He was at a concert that was part of LeakyCon, an annual Harry Potter convention in Boston, which he describes as “an inclusive, nerdy, wonderful gathering where dancing is a highly valued thing that you just have to give yourself over to.” Green hates to dance, so he struck up a conversation with Esther Earl, a 16-year-old who wasn’t dancing because of cancer in her lungs. They became friends and kept in touch.
“Esther taught me that the slice of a sick young person’s life that I’d seen at the hospital was not the whole story,” he says. “And that the truth of illness, even among really young people, is that while it is unfair and it is complete bulls---, they can also have very rich, full lives. You don’t have to have a long life to have a good life. And Esther helped me to understand that.” She died in 2010, more than a year before the publication of Fault, which is dedicated to her.
In 2007, Green and his younger brother, Hank, decided to stop texting each other for a year, and instead address one another through weekly YouTube videos. They have long since resumed texting and speaking, but they’re still doing the video blogs, or vlogs. Hank’s domain is mainly science; John goes off on income inequality, Crimea, or why he knows the color of the Lamborghini Justin Bieber was driving drunk. The popularity of these videos has provided a foundation for a number of Web-enabled enterprises and art projects. According to his brother, Hank is the “hustler,” the entrepreneurial one in the family. It was Hank who made a small business dumpster-diving for textbooks to resell in college and who somehow managed to find a market for the 2D glasses he created (they negate 3D effects at movies). He also founded and runs EcoGeek, a widely read environmental blog, and won an Emmy for a vlog adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
Despite his success with what he calls some “ludicrously bad ideas,” John says, “Hank is pretty radically unbusinesslike in his business ventures. His question is always, ‘Is this going to add more value than it captures? Is this a thing that needs to be done because it can make money, or is this just a cool thing that should be in the world?’ Those are the kinds of questions he asks me about anything we’re doing.”
Among the cool things the Greens decided should be in this world is the animated CrashCourse video series, which has become a common teachers’ aid in high schools, helping kids through photosynthesis, the five pillars of Islam, or the Agricultural Revolution. The two also started VidCon, an annual gathering for prospective Web videographers that this year will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center, and something called DFTBA Records, DFTBA standing for Don’t Forget to Be Awesome, a ubiquitous Green sign-off. It sells John and Hank Green merchandise (Fault key chains) along with products from independent artists and artisans who rely on DFTBA’s online collective for a no-overhead marketplace. It also provides affiliated charities a place to be noticed and valued in a way they wouldn’t be on their own.
Last year, DFTBA generated $2.2 million in revenue. The tag line “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome” plays a key part in what Green calls the Nerdfighter ethos, a nerdfighter being someone dedicated to “increasing awesome and decreasing world suck.” The Foundation to Decrease World Suck started as a joke in 2007, but then, Green says, “it actually started to do things. Like we paid for two high school kids to go to their first concerts, and we started doing small charity stuff.” Now the Foundation to Decrease World Suck is a 501(c)3 charity that makes $50,000 grants—to Save the Children, Partners for Mental Health, Water.org, and the Harry Potter Alliance, among others.
Surely there are Nerdfighters among the roughly 2,500 fans who show up at the next day’s Fault book signing, on a shady quad in the middle of the USC campus. If they are, they keep it to themselves. This crowd comprises readers dedicated enough to wait three hours for a chance to meet Green and snap a furtive photo with their favorite author (there’s a “no posed-picture” rule, but Green’s a poor enforcer). He says the sustained interaction of a three-hour signing is “grueling for someone with an anxiety disorder,” but he doesn’t show it. “Panic at the Disco,” he says to two girls in matching band T-shirts. “I also like Panic at the Disco. Now we have something in common.” They tell him he’s their favorite author. “I’m your favorite author? Really? I win?”
How does it feel to be John Green? one fan asks.
“Right now? Weird. Really weird.”
One slight, stern-looking preteen approaches. With pursed lips and arms folded across her chest, she looks permanently unimpressed. “Cool glasses,” Green says, “Tell me everything about you.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, “but that would be creepy.”
Green almost falls from his plastic chair. “That’s the single greatest thing I’ve ever heard. I love my readers, but you’re my favorite.”